An information pack entitled How to Get Your Poetry Published, circulated by the Poetry Society, contains the following gem of practical advice under the heading ‘Other Avenues’:
Alternative publishing. If your work is all on one theme (e.g. gay or lesbian poetry, Christian poetry, Environment poetry) then you should look for publication in the relevant scene rather than in the poetry press, for instance Onlywomen Press or the SPCK.
This ignorant dismissal of gay or lesbian poetry as being ‘all on one theme’, and the relegation of such obsessively narrow writing to the margins, where writers cannot even expect to get published, let alone be received with respect, is not by any means an untypical approach. The fact is that the British poetry scene is reactionary, nostalgic and prejudiced. The reputations of many of its star turns depend on an exclusivity that maintains an embargo on true diversity. Experimentalism is beyond the pale, as is pretty much anything that amounts to a conviction. As for ‘Christian poetry’ and ‘Environment poetry’—so much for John Donne, so much for Wordsworth. Let them peddle their narrow obsessions from the margins and be ignored.
When gay poetry does make it on to a mainstream list, it continues to be reviewed as if it should not have been allowed there at all. My own first collection, We Have the Melon (Carcanet, 1992), was reviewed in the February 1993 issue of Envoi by Eddie Wainwright. Having described the book as consisting of ‘a certain brand of male homosexual sex poetry’, but without naming the brand or showing any sign that he knew of other brands, he speculated: ‘I suppose somebody will call this kind of writing a celebration of something or other’. Even when conceding that I display ‘a good deal of skill with words and poetic forms’, he had to add that ‘what is in question is the cause which such skills serve’.
Quoting Thom Gunn—‘I recommend this book to everyone’—Wainwright disagrees: ‘I would have thought it was unlikely to stimulate the sympathies of those who do not share its narrow focus’. The phrase ‘stimulate the sympathies’, with its suggestion of a diddling finger or masturbating hand, is Wainwright’s way of trivialising not only the writing but also the reading of gay poetry. The suggestion is that a poet like me writes pornography, and that the only kind of reader who could possibly like my poetry is one who masturbates to it—necessarily, therefore, a gay man. But not only that: a gay man with no interest in poetry itself. The only way to appreciate this muck is with an ejaculation. For my part, I have no objection to that mode of reading; I merely believe there are many other ways into my books. Yes, there are even portals broad enough for the dull-witted heft of the heterosexual male. (Or for that rare type represented by Wainwright, the only type of reader he seems to be reviewing for.)
A recent review of Robert Hamberger’s latest book begins: ‘The Smug Bridegroom is a collection of poems about the disintegration of a marriage and family life and the establishment of a new and entirely different relationship.’ At no point in the review that follows can the reviewer bring himself to mention that this new relationship is ‘entirely different’ (as opposed to just different?) because it is gay. In poems of great subtlety and technical finesse, and without unneeded ostentation or concealment, Hamberger gives as clear an insight into love’s routines and surprises as I have recently seen in any British poetry. Mind you, the back-cover blurb of the book itself does no better: it speaks only of ‘the break-up of marriage and renewal of hope’. The publisher, Five Leaves Press, evidently feels no one will buy it if they know it is gay. And perhaps he is right. I am reminded of the blurbs on video/DVD boxes. Even films with major gay themes are presented as if no such themes were there, lest nobody should want to buy or rent them. Pink pound or not, queerness is still uncommercial. (By today’s standards, that means immoral.) Maybe the poetry market really is currently so depressed that one needs to pander to the prejudiced in order to survive. In my experience, booksellers like Waterstone’s cannot decide which is going to be the greater turn-off for their customers: to put a book in the gay section (if they have one) or in the poetry section.
In a mad review of my last collection The District Commissioner’s Dreams (Carcanet, 2002) in the London Magazine, John Greening wrote, ‘I suppose a Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies has a professional obligation to write about these things, but I’d have welcomed a few poems about trees or fly-fishing’. The information about my job does not appear in the book under review, so Greening has imported it from elsewhere in order to use it against my poetry. Quite what he imagines my professional duties as consisting of is not clear—writing poetry is certainly not a part of them—but my job serves his purposes as a sign of incomprehensible apartness. The idea that gay experience might have something to teach us all—indeed, the vast majority of my students are heterosexual—does not even remotely occur to him. It is not his experience, so he is not interested. (Presumably, he has never understood the point of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary or Hedda Gabler because he is not a suicidal adulteress.) Yet his own hobbies—he being heterosexual and male—are so universal as to be a required topic in any decent literature. (Presumably, he just skims through Tolstoy and Flaubert and Ibsen, sniffing for a whiff of fish.) Complacently assuming the rank accorded to majority status, he cannot imagine that what interests him does not interest the world—and the topics he values are therefore those that are valuable. This is the purely statistical version of how to measure literary worth. The problem is, of course, that even his statistical understanding is suspect. I am willing to bet you that far more men on this planet have sex with other men than fish for fish with flies.
I try to imagine myself reading John Greening’s very best poem about fly-fishing—if such a poem exists—and complaining that, well-crafted though it might be, it was no good because it lacked any gay sex. What is the matter with such people? Can they really not bear to read about things from beyond the narrow limits of their own experience? Do their editors not care that this should disqualify them from reviewing at all? It is as if the cosiness expected of English poetry cannot sustain the sheer seriousness—the problem—of queerness. Imagine the cultural consequences—going back to How to Get Your Poetry Published—of a national poetry scene that routinely excludes lesbian/gay work, Christian work and environmentalist work, purely by identification of their topic. The implications for our literature are serious, to say the least.
Given this atmosphere within the poetry market, it is hardly surprising that those who police the reputations of individual writers tend to try to prevent their being limited by the lesbian or gay label. In 1988 Carl Morse and Joan Larkin failed to get permission to include Elizabeth Bishop in their monumental Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988). In 1995 Faber & Faber refused David Laurents permission to print W.H. Auden’s poem ‘A Day for a Lay’ in The Badboy Book of Erotic Poetry (New York: Badboy, 1995) and the Auden estate actually threatened to sue if he went ahead, even though the poem is readily available on the internet. In 1997 Random House refused Neil Powell permission to use any Auden poems in Gay Love Poetry (London: Robinson, 1997). And in 1998 the literary executor refused Gillian Spraggs permission to publish work by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland in Love Shook My Senses: Lesbian Love Poems (London: Women’s Press, 1998).
The point is that the owners of such literature do not want their property to be reduced in value. And for a writer to be labelled ‘a gay writer’ or ‘a lesbian writer’ is almost always taken as a reduction in value. John Lucas has said of the fact that, in Gay Times, Alan Sinfield once called me ‘the foremost gay poet working in Britain’, such labelling of writers ‘is to guarantee that they’re pushed to the shady side of the street, especially when … the description itself comes from a gay newspaper, so that the street may seem to lead straight to the ghetto’ (The Dark Horse, Winter 2001-2002). As Susan Sontag once said to Edmund White, ‘Surely you don’t want to be just a gay writer. Don’t you want to hit the big time?’
What I am addressing here is a question of the ownership of that tattered commodity the ‘universal’. Is it universally available or not? The case of Thom Gunn gives us a pretty clear answer. Gunn’s reputation went into decline in the UK during the middle period of his career. This was partly because he became too Californian in Moly (1971)—too much free verse, too many free attitudes—but also because he then became openly gay in Jack Straw’s Castle (1976) and The Passages of Joy (1982). His gayness was treated in British reviews, when it was acknowledged at all, as just another Californian distraction from the serious business, and the serious topics, of poetry. But his stock then rose dramatically when The Man with Night Sweats (1992) was published. Now that it involved AIDS, his gayness was no longer trivial. It became palatable at last: for, as I am constantly finding in literary criticism, gay deaths can be identified with by straight men, but gay love can not.
This tendency may also help to explain why Mark Doty’s openly gay poetry has been subjected to surprisingly little Greening-like resistance in Britain. Doty’s is a world in which nothing is so earthy that it cannot be compared to a precious ornament. His sensuousness is aestheticised to the verge of pure theory. The fact that he writes so impressively about his relationship with his male lover is rendered acceptable by the context of AIDS and mourning. The English poetic tradition finds elegy attractive, once the loved man is dying or dead and therefore rendered harmless.
How to Get Your Poetry Published refers to ‘other avenues’ available to lesbian and gay poets, but the fact is that no such avenues exist, other than on-line. There is a lot of gay and lesbian poetry on the internet—more than we have ever seen before—but there are no consistently reliable sites showcasing the best of such work. The development of the net has both hindered and helped. But, in truth, gay magazines and periodicals in Britain have not been publishing verse for many years. The cultural journal perversions (1994-1996) could have carried poetry but never did. The European Gay Review (1986-1992) only published work by anyone famous enough for its editor to have heard of them; this restricted the field. I did once manage to infiltrate a poem, ‘The Fire Raiser’ into London’s gay newspaper Capital Gay, but only because it was about an arson attack on the premises of Capital Gay itself. Before that, the editors of the much-lamented Square Peg did not appear to believe poetry could ever be trendy enough to fit in with their admirably experimentalist ethos, but they did occasionally overcome their scruples on this point.
There has not been a consistently enthusiastic outlet for gay and lesbian verse in Britain since Gay News, under the literary editorship of Alison Hennegan. I remember, in particular, regularly seeing the work of Ivor Treby and James Kirkup. Ironically, of course, it was poetry that more or less finished off Gay News when, in 1977, Mary Whitehouse took exception to Kirkup’s fatuous poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’ and made sure that the newspaper was prosecuted for ‘blasphemous libel’. Sad to say, the poem was not worth the eventual effect of its publication—the killing off of the country’s main outlet for gay verse (and many other things besides).
No gay poetry publishing houses have survived. The Oscars Press came and went, publishing chapbooks by new poets and a sequence of impressive anthologies. Oscars luminaries included Peter Daniels, Steve Anthony and Christina Dunhill. (Brilliance Books flared up briefly, too, but although they were daring, they had never had the nerve to publish verse. Nor did the short-lived Heretic Books and The Trouser Press.) In the 1980s the Gay Men’s Press used to put out two-poet collections, under the poetry editorship of Martin Humphries, but the series was discontinued for economic reasons. I remember being especially, enviously impressed by Steve Cranfield’s collection, which Humphries sensibly paired with his own in 1989. For a while it seemed that there was a thriving gay poetry scene, if only in London. Of course, some of our most promising writers have been lost to AIDS. The very best of the Oscars poets was Adam Johnson. His posthumous Collected Poems were published this year by Carcanet Press.
Yet there are still plenty of gay poets around. Carcanet alone publishes a number of them, besides myself, including David Kinloch, John Gallas and Roger Finch; Edwin Morgan and John Ashbery; Edward Lucie-Smith and Neil Powell. Elsewhere, Lee Harwood continues to produce some of the most impressively sidelong takes on both male relationships and on verse itself. The most well-known of the new generation of Irish-language gay poets is Cathal Ó Searcaigh. And there is always the venerable Thom Gunn. His last collection, Boss Cupid (2000), struck me as more impressive, even, than The Man with Night Sweats. The whole book crackles with disturbing splicings of the erotic and the deadly. Who could forget Gunn’s grim variation on the carpe diem entreaty, expressed from the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s point of view: ‘love must be ensnared while on the run, / For later it will spoil’?
Before Andrew Motion was appointed Poet Laureate in 1999, two lesbian poets, U.A. Fanthorpe and Carol Ann Duffy, were spoken of as strong candidates. Jackie Kay, too, was occasionally mentioned. From its dedication (‘For Rosie as always’) onwards, Fanthorpe’s latest collection, Queueing for the Sun (Peterloo, 2000) wanders gently back and forth between the first persons singular and plural, with the effect of extending the refined subjectivity of an alert and sensitive poet’s mind to the shared experiences of loving togetherness. In this respect, her ‘we’ reminds me of that of Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazil-based poems she dedicated to the woman she loved.
Gay poetry has been relatively under-researched by literary academics. Although there have been books on individual authors, as far as I know there have been no accounts of Anglophone gay poetry in general since Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (University of Texas Press, 1979) and my own Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (Yale, 1987). However, the Australian academic Paul Knobel is now writing a history of gay poetry. Until that is finished, we have his Encyclopedia of Male Homosexual Poetry and Its Reception History (2002), a very wide-ranging CD-Rom (available from Homo Poetry, P.O. Box 672, Edgecliff, New South Wales, Australia 2027).
[This essay was first published in Magma 27 (Autumn 2003), pp.22-26.]